Clark’s Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (1990)

I should have read this book ages ago. I have read a lot about it — you can count on seeing it cited and discussed by any good recent book on Nietzsche. So I have learned from others what Clark says. But this is my first time reading the book, and I am extremely impressed with her scholarly judgment, her philosophical acumen, and her careful study of Nietzsche.

The focus of the book is on Nietzsche’s attitude toward truth, and the effect it has on his view of the role of philosophy. Some of Nz’s most famous quotes come from an unpublished essay, “Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense,” written in 1873. It is there we find this shiny gem:

What, then, is truth? A mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms—in short, a sum of human relations which have been enhanced, transposed, and embellished poetically and rhetorically, and which after long use seem firm, canonical, and obligatory to a people: truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins.

That sure sounds like a denial of truth. But Nz seems to be offering his view of the truth, and criticizing others, throughout every page of every major work. So what gives?

According to Clark — and she provides a close argument for this conclusion — Nz’s view of truth shifted over his career. Fairly early on, when he was still messing with Schopenhauer, he had some belief in an ultimate reality, a noumenal world of things in themselves which exist independently of human experience. He believed at the same time that humans are particularly ill-suited toward having any knowledge of such things. And so the best we can manage is some sort of faulty image, a metaphor, for what is really out there.

But then, as Nz gave up Sch and Wagner, and wrote HAH, he dispensed with the notion of things in themselves. They play no role in explaining anything in our experience, and we cannot even conceive them — so why believe in them? But at the same time, Nz inconsistently held on to the idea that our so-called knowledge is at best a pale, insufficient version of what is really true. But you cannot dis our knowledge without affirming some independently-existing thing whose structure is not getting captured by our thinking.

Eventually — after BGE — Nietzsche gave up the “metaphysical correspondence” theory of truth, and believed truth to be immanent to a perspective. Once we give up things in themselves, we give up the idea of a “God’s eye perspective,” i.e., a perspective from everywhere and nowhere, and affirm only particular perspectives. These perspectives overlap with one another and can be compared with one another — we can see the world through this lens and that lens, and evaluate which lens gives us the better picture, given our own interests and concerns. When we’re concerned with predictive accuracy, for example, Einstein’s lens turns out to be better than Newton’s.

Clark’s account continues. Nz was interested in big philosophical lenses, and (principally in GM) argues that humans have throughout history employed the lens of asceticism: that life is to be lived for the sake of higher, unearthly ideals. The basic human concern this lens was trying to satisfy was our interest in finding something worth living for, and some reason not to fall into suicidal nihilism. Nz argues that asceticism, which was originally religious in nature, gradually evolved into science, and science’s will to truth, which ultimately ends in nihilism. So asceticism has played itself out, and it fails. Nz’s constructive project is to provide a new lens, the affirmation of life, the will to power, and the eternal recurrence, which is a new perspective in competition with the old nihilism. He argues that it has the power to succeed where ascetic religion and science have failed.

I need to read the book again. It is patiently argued, and deserves to be read carefully. Right now it seems to me extremely plausible and significant.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
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7 Responses to Clark’s Nietzsche on Truth and Philosophy (1990)

  1. Kleiner says:

    I have not read this book, but will put it on my list. I really like the interpretation, and it is a useful one from the point of view of connecting Nz to later developments in Continental Philosophy (Heidegger’s critique of technological thinking and truth as correspondence, Levinas’ move from ‘truth’ to ‘witness’, hermeneutics, etc).


  2. Huenemann says:

    She has very instructive accounts of Heidegger’s interpretation throughout, and chapter 1 especially.


  3. ganselmi says:

    Does Nietzsche’s description of the dionysian still hint at the presence of a terrifying Real which stands outside/transcends all signification? Does the dionysian v. appollonian framework come into play in this discussion or am I totally off-track? (This is possibly a matter of timeline, i.e. when it was articulated…)


  4. Huenemann says:

    Yes, I would say that in BT, Nz does suggest that there is some noumenal reality which manifests itself in Apollonian and Dionysian moods. But I think that Nz did not think this through very deeply. In his later preface to the work, he chides his former self. He says the book has “an artists metaphysics” in the background, and he faults Schopenhauer for encouraging in him the belief that the phenomenal world is in some way a mask of the terrifying Real.


  5. ganselmi says:

    I see. I can see how he’d come to scrap it in light of his later — less systematic? — philosophy, but I always found this concept (dionysian v. appollonian) so fascinating.

    It’s also worth noting how it is here that we find some structural parallels between Nietzsche here and other 19th century modernists besides Schopenhauer:

    — with Marx(ism): the appollonian correlates with the reifying capitalist represenation of how commodities and, ultimately, value are created, while the dionysian is labor, the “true” source of value, the basis of social production. Or better yet the appollonian is commodity fetishism which masks the “true” relations of production underlying capitalism.

    — with Psychoanalysis: this is too easy — the appollonian correlates with the conscious, neurotic discourse of the subject or the latent content of dreams, with the dionysian as the Freudian Real, the monstrous, repressed desire it, the appollonian, works so hard to mask.

    Maybe I’m generalizing too much though.


  6. Rob says:

    Despite how often that unpublished essay has been invoked to construe Nietzsche as some kind of proto-pomo, his sole published mention of it — in the first section of the Preface to HH2 — clearly places it in a phase of development he regards himself as having surpassed. Clearly, those who ascribe kooky views to Nietzsche — such as that he ‘doesn’t believe in truth’, or ‘it all perspectives’, or with a specious Rortyesque gloss — are either fixated on aspects of his early works, on unpublished notes, in which he indeed experiments with ideas rightly left unpublished (along, of course, with ideas one wishes he had developed and published); but I suspect what’s usually happening is that it’s a matter of people interpreting Nietzsche according to their own half-baked epistemological views (hence why so much crap on Nietzsche comes from disciplines outside of philosophy, though god know there’s still plenty from within).


  7. Rob says:

    Forgot to add, though you probably already know, that Clark’s long-anticipated book on BGE (‘Nietzsche’s Magnificent Tension of the Spirit’) may finally appear within the next year or two. It’s co-authored by her former colleague at Colgate, David Dudrick, with whom most of her published work on Nietzsche over the past several years has been written. Their essay (“The Naturalisms of BGE”) in ‘A Companion to Nietzsche’ (Blackwell, 2006) is the most cogent challenge to the scope of Leiter’s naturalistic reading of Nietzsche that I’ve yet encountered in the literature, and I’m a bit surprised Leiter hasn’t addressed it. (Richardson’s essay from that collection is also well worth reading.)

    Also, Clark’s entry on Nietzsche in the Routlege Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a nice entry-level overview of Nietzsche’s thought.


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